Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the Executive Director of the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women) - UN Photo
CAIRO – 2 November 2017: “The use of quotas and temporary special measures would help in increasing women representation including in conflict resolution,” said Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the executive director of the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (U.N. Women) earlier this week during a U.N. Security Council (UNSC) session to discuss ways to reduce women’s exposure to harm through better representation of women and realizing their potentials. Ngcuka pointed to Somalia and Mali, where representation of women surged when such measures were instituted.
Moreover, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which provides the basis for realizing equality between women and men through ensuring women's equal access to equal opportunities in political and public life, referred that member states should take all appropriate measures, including legislation and temporary special measures so that women can enjoy their human rights and fundamental freedoms. CEDAW and international norms were advanced by the U.N. Fourth Conference on Women in Beijing that resulted in the adoption of quotas as special measures to ensure women representation in politics, business and beyond.
Almost half of the countries across the globe, including developing and developed countries, are using the quota system to create equal representation among genders and to ease the access of women into political power. For example, some European Union (EU) countries like Belgium, France, Slovenia and Spain, introduced gender quotas by law, while some political parties in other EU countries adopted voluntary party quotas for their electoral lists. Also, in the Middle East, most countries apply the gender quota system, including Egypt, Palestine, Tunisia and Jordan.
The idea behind gender quotas was driven by the fact that in many countries around the world, women still don’t have access to education, safety, work, healthcare or political decision making.
But the question remains, do gender quotas really contribute to closing the gender gap and increasing women’s representation?
Opinions on the effectiveness of gender quotas vary based on their implementation and their effect, even among supporters of women’s equality as potential beneficiaries. Despite being controversial, gender quotas are the oldest forms of fighting structural discrimination against women and entrenched privilege built over time. As temporary measures, they help break down social, cultural and political barriers to the normality of women taking up prominent roles. This leads to changing the gender perspective of women’s societal roles beyond the traditional roles and compensates for discriminatory attitudes that undervalue women’s real abilities.
Moreover, adopting gender quotas in politics ensures that the parliament reflects the population it represents, as well as every citizen in the country. Also, quotas in business can ensure that qualified women are no longer denied access to management positions because of their gender. Gender quotas in business also create new incentives for high performing women to enter the business field by drawing in the best performing women. Supporters of gender quotas in business argue that this system is beneficial to businesses, as women can help better answer the needs of 50 percent of consumers by bringing in their experiences.
Supporters also argue that gender quotas are essential in post-conflict and post-revolutionary countries, where social unrest can lead to changes in gender relations. In such situations, adopting gender quotas can influence new constitutions and policies.
While some perceive quotas as a popular option for increasing women’s representation, a common argument of the critics is that quotas create an artificial boost in women’s representation and don’t tackle the root cause of inequality. Also, they argue that quotas promote cultural beliefs that women represent only women and can’t represent men. Critics point out that political leaders may use the implementation of gender quotas as a strategy to show the international community their commitment to democracy and women’s rights.
Furthermore, a classical argument against quotas is that forcing businesses to hire women or political parties to nominate women deprives women of the chance to prove themselves and that they could have earned these positions through their own capacity. It also creates a concern that women who are elected via quotas may be generally loyal to the party that nominated them. The critics think that quotas can prevent the increase of women’s representation above the number of seats reserved through the system, and therefore create a ceiling for women’s representation.
The outlined criteria for gender quotas vary from one country to another. Egyptian women preceded women in all Arab countries in the field of parliamentary representation, as women entered parliament for the first time in 1957. With law No. 46 of 2014, Egypt adopted a quota system that requires parties’ lists to include a certain number of women. Moreover, the 2014 constitution provides that 50 percent of members appointed by the president must be women. As a result, women have 89 seats reserved in the parliament, 14.9 percent of the available seats, achieving the highest women’s representation in Egypt’s parliamentary history. 75 women were elected, and 14 women were appointed by President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi according to the constitution. Without the 2014 quota, women’s representation would have been about four percent, similar to the previous elections held without a gender quota.
A general comment on both the supporters and the critics is that their arguments don’t tackle a very important fact: that the number of talented women is not fixed. A quota system can be an essential first step to increasing women’s political participation and ensuring that women have a voice in issues that matter to their future. However, it is important to measure both the efficacy of quotas in the context and the subsequent effectiveness of women seated in the parliament, business or any other arena to understand whether a meaningful advance has been made in women’s rights and gender equality.
Such systems should be temporary, and later they should be lifted in accordance with the principle of equal treatment as it is interpreted by international courts of human rights. Women, equally to men, should be able to compete freely for leadership and decision making positions according to their own capacities, without limits and without forcing a glass ceiling on them.